Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 194: 'Jim's Introduction to Gender Identity' (2017)

An animated short film from 2017 deals with some of the same issues as Glen or Glenda.

As I was rewatching Glen or Glenda (1953) recently, I took note of just how many earnest heart-to-heart conversations this one film contains. Let's see here. Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot) talks to Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell). Glen (Ed Wood) talks to his fiancĂ©e, Barbara (Dolores Fuller). Glen's sister Sheila (Evelyn Wood) talks to her unnamed female coworker. Glen talks to Barbara some more. Two unseen foundry workers, Jack and Joe, talk to each other. Glen talks to his friend Johnny (Charles Crafts). Glen talks to Barbara a third (!) and fourth (!!) time. Finally, Dr. Alton talks to Glen and Barbara. That's a lot of conversation for a film that's barely feature-length.

Some Glenda-esque poster art.
Glen or Glenda deals with some sensitive and highly controversial topics, including cross-dressing and gender reassignment, and writer-director Edward D. Wood, Jr. obviously felt the best strategy was to have his characters sit down and exchange their thoughts and feelings about these things. In Cult Movies 3 (1988), critic Danny Peary even compares Glenda to old-fashioned soap operas in which women talk through their problems with friends over the kitchen table. It's a nice thought, isn't it? Maybe more of the world's problems could be solved if we'd just stop shouting at each other and started a calm, reasonable dialogue instead.

That's the theory, anyway. Your results may vary.

I thought about all of this as I watched Jim's Introduction to Gender Identity aka My Friend is Transgender (2017), a short film by New York-based animator K. Kypers. A video like this might have flown under my radar, despite garnering over 800K views, but Kypers recently began posting to an Ed Wood group on Facebook that I also frequent. In one thread, Kypers mentioned that the poster art for the short film was directly inspired by the iconic, instantly familiar Glen or Glenda poster. As I watched the film itself, I noticed that it contained numerous references to the Ed Wood canon, making it a prime candidate for coverage in this series.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "Me, a Pharaoh?"

Fonzie canoodles with Cleopatra on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.

Was Cleopatra hot? More than most historical figures—Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Benjamin Franklin, etc.—Cleopatra VII (69 BC-30 BC) is often discussed in terms of her sexuality and attractiveness. To this day, documentaries about the Ptolemaic queen play up her romantic relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, and there's usually a segment in which we see a 3D reconstruction of her face while various experts debate whether she'd be considered attractive by modern day standards. It seems an ignoble fate for this once mighty queen. But, hey, at least we're still talking about her.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're reviewing the 1981 episode "The 20,000 Drachma Pyramid," in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and his pals travel to ancient Egypt and witness the coronation of an 18-year-old Cleopatra. But Miss Cleo has numerous obstacles to overcome on her way to the throne: a scheming priest, a vengeful mummy, and even a disappearing river! Luckily, the Happy Days kids are there to solve all of these problems for her. Naturally, there are major sparks between Fonzie and Cleo, and it all culminates in what I'd deem a rare interracial kiss on 1980s network TV.

But does any of this mean "The 20,000 Drachma Pyramid" is a good episode and worth 25 minutes of your time? Find out by listening to the podcast below!

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 193: The mystery of Henry Kekoanui (UPDATED!)

This actor appeared in Ed Wood's The Sinister Urge and nothing else that we know of.

Do you know what an artesian well is? It's a naturally-occurring site where pressurized water rises to the surface of its own accord, without human intervention. In other words, it's a well you don't have to pump. Rudolph Grey's book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) is a lot like that—the literary equivalent of an artesian well. Turn to just about any page in it, and interesting little details will bubble to the surface on their own. I've had my copy for about 30 years, and I'm still finding new things in it.

There's an entire section in the book, for instance, about the making of The Sinister Urge (1960). This was Ed Wood's final "mainstream" film as a writer-director before he descended permanently into the world of softcore and hardcore pornography. Since Sinister deals with the so-called "smut racket" and even includes a flash of nudity, it's tempting to think of it as a transitional film in Eddie's career, i.e. a signpost to where his career was heading.

On page 101 of Nightmare of Ecstasy, you'll find a small gallery of images—Grey fancifully calls it a "quartet"—from The Sinister Urge. What caught my attention recently was the photo in the upper left-hand corner, a publicity still of someone identified as Henry Kekoanui. It's a striking image. The dark-haired, mustachioed man is shirtless and has an intense look in his eyes, like he's about to strike. Imagine Gomez Addams as a 1950s bad guy wrestler. Henry's arms and upper body are muscular, but his midsection is a bit paunchy. He's being photographed in some strange, eerie void where a dramatic shadow looms over him. And he seems to be carrying something, perhaps a garment, in his left hand.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

WATCH! The Candy Land commercial that haunted me for years! (Updated for 2024!)

This is what Milton Bradley's Candy Land looked like in 1978.

The game board as it looked in '78.
It's funny how an utterly ephemeral piece of music will become firmly lodged in one's brain for decades. Take, for instance, the instrumental music in an early '80s ad for the Milton Bradley board game Candy Land. There was a particular 30-second spot for this product that I must have seen dozens of times while watching Popeye and Andy Panda cartoons as a kid. Obviously, Milton Bradley bought up a lot of advertising time on children's TV shows, and I was smack dab in the middle of the target demographic.

The commercial itself is typical of the era. In a sunshine-yellow suburban kitchen somewhere, a young brother (played by a pre-Christmas Story Peter Billingsley) and sister play the game with their mom, while a gentle-voiced male announcer explains how it all works.

But underneath the narration is a jaunty, repetitive little melody with a whistle-like sound. To this day, I remember that insidious little ditty by heart. I will likely never forget it. As for the narrator's spiel, I didn't commit every word of it to memory, but there are certain passages that stick out: "You'll discover the Gingerbread Plum Tree, a Rainbow Pass, and Gumdrop Mountain! But be careful of the Cherry Pit Falls, and don't get stuck in Molasses Swamp!" The way he weirdly emphasizes "Rainbow Pass," as if it's a major selling point, is rather memorable.

Incidentally, one thing I learned in the course of researching this article is that there is no "definitive" version of the classic game. The internet can't even decide whether it's called Candy Land or Candyland. Under either spelling, the game goes back to 1949. The gameboard itself and the box it comes in have been redesigned and revamped many times since then. What was once merely "Molasses Swamp," for instance, is now a sentient creature unappealingly named "Gloppy." Other characters, like "main antagonist" Lord Licorice, have been added to Candy Land since the days of my youth. (In my day, bad luck was the only antagonist in Candy Land.)

Through trial and error, I learned that the version of the game seen in the famous ad dates back to 1978. Most sources say the commercial first appeared in the early 1980s, possibly 1983.

The indelible Candy Land jingle played a minor yet arguably-significant role in my life. I can remember humming it over and over to annoy my older sister during a long car trip. She must have identified the song, too, because she said, "Mom, tell Joey to stop singing the Candy Land song!"

A few years later, when I joined the school band, a few of my fellow musicians-in-training and I would try to learn as many pop songs, TV and movie themes, and advertising jingles as possible on our respective instruments. Then as now, I played the euphonium—a little-understood and much-neglected instrument to which I was dutifully assigned after failing to make the grade on the cornet. 

Being relegated to the low brass section was moderately more fun if I could play a reasonable facsimile of '"Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin or "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." I remember it was a major victory (in my own mind) when I learned the familiar seven-note "Miss Gulch" theme from The Wizard of Oz. But there was this one kid, Marc Wojtowicz, who played the saxophone and had a dizzying range of tunes at his command. And one of them was—you guessed it—the Candy Land jingle. That may not impress you, but it impressed the hell out of me.

Anyway, here's the commercial. If the song takes up permanent residence in your subconscious, remember that I tried to warn you.

UPDATE FOR 2024: Reader Dan Mahoney informs me that the jingle used in the Candy Land commercial is actually a piece of stock music called "Whistling Robot" by British composer and organist Harold Smart (1921-1980). In more recent years, Harold's music has turned up on SpongeBob SquarePants and its various spinoffs. Thanks for setting the record straight, Dan!

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 192: I bought a stack of Ed Wood books. So how did I do?

Yes, I bought this stack of books. Did I overpay? Underpay? Let's find out together.

Way back in the spring of 2015, there was a massive auction of Ed Wood memorabilia in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I knew I couldn't afford anything pricy, like Eddie's actual suitcase, but I felt like I wanted to get something. I settled for a poster advertising Glen or Glenda (1953) under one of its many alternate titles, I Led 2 Lives, and a collection of Mexican lobby cards for Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) aka Espectros del espacio. The poster I had framed; it now hangs in my kitchen and greets me every morning. The lobby cards I keep in a binder and rarely look at. 

All in all, this set me back about $400—then and now a huge sum of money for me. When things got particularly lean a few years ago, I even considered selling these items at a loss before deciding that it was more trouble than it was worth. Not to mention depressing. So I kept them as stern reminders of what not to do with my money.

Because of that experience, I vowed I would never make another major and totally unnecessary Ed Wood-related purchase again.  I also knew that, someday, I would more than likely do it again. I bravely (?) held out for nearly a decade. Then, in the spring of 2024, I saw on Facebook that a fan was selling off some of his collection, including a stack of Wood (and Wood-adjacent) books. Since I rely mostly on e-books and PDF files in my research for this series, I own very few paperback and hardcover editions of Ed's work. So I was tempted.

After a couple of weeks of hemming and hawing and exchanging a few direct messages with the seller, we eventually settled on a deal: nine books for $350, including shipping. For you non-mathematicians out there, that's about $38 or $39 a book. Was I cheated? Did I do pretty okay for myself? Let's break it down, book by book, and find out.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "Must Be the Season of the Witch"

Fonzie, Mr. Cool, and a witch on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.

In many ways, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) was a major breakthrough for Hanna Barbera. Not only was the show a ratings success and the beginning of a multimedia empire that is still going today, it reached a teenage audience beyond just the grade schoolers who normally watched Saturday morning TV. Little wonder, then, that HB attempted one Scooby clone after another in the 1970s and '80s, including Speed Buggy, Jabberjaw, and Goober and the Ghost Chasers.

It took me a while to realize that The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang is essentially another Scooby wannabe, imitating the original show almost character for character. Instead of leader Fred, we have Fonzie (Henry Winkler). Instead of ditzy Daphne, we have Cupcake (Didi Conn). Instead of nerdy Velma, we have Richie (Ron Howard). Instead of cowardly Shaggy, we have Ralph Malph (Don Most). Naturally, we need a humanlike animal mascot. Instead of Scooby or Scrappy, we have Mr. Cool (Frank Welker). And the gang needs a flashy mode of transportation, so instead of the Mystery Machine, we get the time machine.

The episode that made me realize this was "You'll Never Get Witch," in which Fonzie and his pals travel to Salem in 1692 and get caught up in the witch trials. The only thing to distinguish it from Scooby-Doo is that it features the Happy Days kids. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Find out when you listen to the latest installment of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 191: 'Rue Pigalle' (1966)

A Texas sheriff investigates the seamy underbelly of Paris in the unproduced Rue Pigalle.

"I'd not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It’s a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other."
-Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

In many ways, Ed Wood's kinky crime novel Parisian Passions (1966) serves as a companion piece to the film Orgy of the Dead (1965), which Eddie scripted for producer-director Stephen C. Apostolof. They're from the same era of Ed's career and feature a lot of the same phrases, like "it would seem..." and "evening's pleasure." As I was making my way through Parisian Passions, I kept thinking, "Hmmm. That sounds like a line from Orgy of the Dead. It's almost like these two things were written back-to-back." Which they basically were. We'll get into it.

Parisian Passions and Orgy of the Dead.
Beyond their superficial similarities, these two works are linked thematically. Both of these stories are built around the idea that so-called "night people" engage in wicked, sinful acts while all the decent people are in bed asleep. In Parisian Passions, undercover cop Buck Rhodes is forced to witness such shameful rituals while overseas on a murder case but does not partake of them. (Heaven forfend!) In Orgy of the Dead, straight-laced couple Bob (William Bates) and Shirley (Pat Barrington) are likewise compelled to witness some supernatural debauchery, but they do so strictly from the sidelines.

As it turns out, Parisian Passions would likely not exist at all without Orgy of the Dead. In 1966, after striking a distribution deal for Orgy with a company called F.O.G., director Stephen C. Apostolof received three checks totaling $15,000 (nearly $150K in today's money) from the company's founder, Fred O. Gebhardt. Like any true red-blooded filmmaker, Steve immediately made plans to take that money and invest it in several new productions. These productions would need scripts, and Steve turned to Ed Wood because he knew Eddie could write something very quickly. The result was a screenplay called 7 Rue Pigalle, which centers around a Texas sheriff investigating a series of murders in the red-light district of Paris.

This strange, never-to-be-completed project has surprisingly deep roots. From 1948 to 1950, after fleeing his native Bulgaria and briefly dwelling in Istanbul, Steve Apostolof actually lived in Paris. He remembered his address there as being 7 Rue Pigalle. There is, in fact, a street in Paris named after sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785). The surrounding neighborhood, the Quartier Pigalle, became a notorious tourist trap in the 20th century due to its numerous sex shops and adult theaters. During World War II, American soldiers even started calling it "Pig Alley." (The pun only works in English; the French word for pig is cochon.)

The actual 7 Rue Pigalle. Yes, it's a real address in Paris.